As a young man in his 20s, Stanley Burrell was a Christian missionary, going door to door in East Palo Alto, a town southeast of San Francisco on the "wrong side of the tracks." In the early 1980s, East Palo Alto was mired in poverty and, despite its small size, had one of the highest homicide rates in the United States.
"That was the real foundation, as a grown man, of saying, 'Hey, I want to help. I want to affect change,'" Burrell told us about his time in the neighbourhood.
Most people know Burrell as MC Hammer -- the man in the neon parachute pants who helped bring rap music into the mainstream in the early 1990s. But we also know him as an ordained preacher, devoted to raising awareness of the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) that ravage impoverished communities in the developing world. At We Day Seattle this year, he helped ignite the same inspiration for world change in the young audience that was lit in him all those years ago.
This summer has witnessed so many heart-warming stories of people giving of themselves to help total strangers--from the flooding in Alberta to the horrific rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic. But just what is it that makes a person set aside their own interests and devote their personal energies to others? It's a question that has long fascinated us, and we have become collectors who gather stories about people finding their "spark"--discovering how their passion could change the world and how to use their talents to give back.
If you are still searching for your spark, here are a few of the stories from our collection that might provide a bit of kindling.
In North America, we often take our privileges for granted. Award-winning actress and activist Mia Farrow was one of the hundreds of millions of children struck by polio in the 1950s. She spent weeks in hospital. Fortunately Farrow came from a well-to-do family and got the best treatment. Although she was only nine at the time, she told us it was a time of reflection for her.
"It gave me time to think and also to acknowledge that there was suffering in the world and realize that there was a world outside of my world, a privileged world."
Today, Farrow is a UN Goodwill Ambassador who works tirelessly on behalf of children in conflict zones, especially the Darfur region of Sudan. She has launched an ambitious project to record and preserve the culture of the peoples of Darfur who have been driven from their ancestral homes in a time of genocide.
You don't need to be bed-ridden like Farrow to reflect on the benefits we enjoy as Canadians, and how we can share those with others.
The world is full of inspirational people whose example can ignite a passion for giving back. And as Benoit Huot learned, sometimes you can light a spark simply by telling those role models how much they mean to you.
In 1996, Olympic gold medal skier Jean-Luc Brassard visited the school of a 12-year-old Huot and delivered a speech that inspired Huot to pursue his own dream of swimming competitively, despite a disability in his legs. Huot went on to take 19 medals for Canada in four Paralympic Games.
Six years after that fateful speech, Huot found himself sitting beside Brassard at a golf tournament in Montreal. He turned to the man who had inspired him and thanked him. Huot told us there were tears in Brassard's eyes as he thanked Huot in return, saying it was the first time he had realized the impact he had on others.
"So when I realized that I said, wow, I have to do that as well. I realized I need to be involved," Huot told us.
Today Huot follows in Brassard's footsteps, speaking in schools to inspire a new generation of Canadian athletes and parathletes.
Even if you haven't found your spark yet, get out and volunteer for something--anything that interests you. The rewards of volunteering may provide your sought-after raison d'être. Just ask Dave Williams, the Canadian astronaut who has also saved countless lives as an emergency room physician.
Williams told us about his experience as a YMCA lifeguard in his 20s, teaching CPR courses. One day, one of his former students came back to express her gratitude. Because of what Williams had taught her, she was able to save the life of her own baby.
"I realized that each of us has the power to make a difference--when you think more broadly through the concept of 'We'," Williams said.
If you're still hunting for your spark, listen to the stories of others. When you meet a volunteer or someone making change in your community, ask them what first motivated them. If you've already found your spark, share your story with others.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.